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As reported in the Bega District News, this week the Forestry corporation and the OE&H released their long awaited final draft working plan, for the Murrah flora reserves.
According to the plan ” . . . The aim is that with the cessation of forestry and some specific management actions, koala recovery in the Murrah Flora Reserves and adjacent forest can be realised over time. This will be tested in the long term by monitoring and evaluation within an adaptive management framework.”

Regrettably, the OE&H’s adaptive management framework has some significant limitations. In particular the need to maintain the illusion, when prescriptions are followed, it regulates a sustainable logging industry. Hence the only referenced sentence on soils is ” . . . The steeper slopes are susceptible to erosion if disturbed (Tulau 1997).”

On forest condition the plan indicates ” . . . Mid storey structure and composition varies across the reserves, with a key management issue being the extent of black she-oak regrowth and other disturbance-generated tree and shrub species. These contribute to increased vertical fuel loads and prevent germination and regeneration of preferred koala species, particularly woollybutt.”

Another issue that could prevent the germination and regeneration of preferred koala species is soil loss and the associated reduction in soil fertility. For example, the harvesting plan for compartments 2080 and 2081, in Mumbulla SF and dated 11-8-1994, estimated an average of about 9.5 c/m of sawlogs and 85 tonnes of pulplogs per hectare would be removed in the operation. However, the estimated soil loss from the operation, only provided for cpt 2180, was 132.8 tonnes per hectare.


I recently revisited the vast area burned in the Cuttagee catchment, to get some shots of brown and dry vertical fuel loads, now some months after the fire. Coincidentally, I came across two of the recently established research plots. As indicated in the photo above, this one is on relatively flat ground. Some silvertop-ash and all the black she-oak have been cut down and placed into piles. Retained trees are mostly silertop-ash, a couple of spindly stringy-barks and a hickory wattle.Walking around the plot it was clear that all of the silver-top ash have coppiced, with multiple stems growing from the stumps. In addition there are dozens of hickory wattle seedlings in the plot. Both of these outcomes will increase vertical fuel loads, although unlike forest around the plot, these fuel loads won’t be brown and dry.

In the second plot below, on a steep slope, three large woollybuts have been retained  during logging and it appears all of the regrowth trees were black-oak. These have been cut down and placed as one would make a bonfire. It appears attempts were made to burn the bonfire, although the timber was clearly too wet to burn. Hickory wattle seedling were also evident in this plot, although there were fewer than the first plot, perhaps due to erosion of the exposed soils. 

Forestry and the OE&H are accepting comments on the plan until January 31, 2018.

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Last year the OE&H suggested they were going to release their management plan for the Murrah Flora Reserve, in the middle of this year. Now six months on and with the festive season looming, it seems unlikely the plan will appear this year. While there may be several reasons for the delay, it is possible one of these is connected to the restructure of the NPSW and the recommendations of a report titled ‘Management of public land in NSW.’

The report was produced by the General purpose standing committee No.5, for the NSW Legislative Council in 2013. It suggests ” . . . that reservation is not the only means to protect biodiversity and that conservation outcomes can be achieved alongside other land uses. The Committee therefore recommends that there be investigation into the wider application of the multiple land-use model in public land management in New South Wales (Recommendation 1.2) in recognition that public lands can be managed for a range of purposes while achieving the best conservation outcomes for that land.”

Of course apart from National Parks, logging is only other use for public forests.

The report also indicates ” . . . The Inquiry also heard evidence that effective conservation management and planning is best done with a tenure-blind approach, working to improve natural vegetation corridors and ecological health across the landscape.” It goes on to recommend starting a nil or blind tenure approach ” . . . beginning with fire, pests and weeds and conservation management, to ensure consistency and improved land management outcomes for both public and private land managers. ”

The only issue is whether the current approach, in a different and one assumes cheaper format, will lead to improved land management outcomes.

When it comes to koalas, all the evidence confirms past and present management is essentially aimed at deforestation and species extinction. So while I expect no change in the NSW government’s approach, the Regional Forest Agreements were supposed to usher in some accountability.

Forestry were supposed to have a forest inventory, but they haven’t. Similarly the NPWS should be required to demonstrate its broad acre burning leads to improved outcomes, as opposed to an increased threat of wildfire.

Apart from threatening humans, the cost associated with current fire management include the loss of many species, like the large stick insect (Ctenomorpha chronus) in the photo.

Thankfully this one survived physical thinning of forest oaks, although the outcome from burning would have been a barbecued stick insect, all other  insect and any koalas in the area.

Following up on his book ‘Firestick Ecology’, former forester Vic Jurskis has written a paper, accepted for publication in Wildlife Research, titled ‘Ecological history of the koala and implications for management.’

According to Mr Jurskis, the decline in koala populations is not a crisis, rather koala numbers are returning to a pre-European state. The ‘eruptions’ in koala numbers, here 120 years ago and those of translocated island koalas in Victoria, is put down to poor management, particularly a lack of frequent burning.

In one press report he describes the creation of the Murrah Flora reserve as a perverse outcome for a species that was not recorded in the area at the time of European settlement. Exactly how he knows this and how this theory fits with his previous estimate of 800 to 1600 koalas in the Eden region isn’t clear.

I do recall the first time I met Vic, back in the 1990’s, not long after the 8 radio collared koalas had died. I informed him of koala pellets I located in Nullica State Forest, where two of the aforementioned koalas were tracked. His response was to say the two koalas, Robert and Roberta, were the only koalas in Nullica SF.

Vic’s simple theories have many holes, not least of these is the knowledge that the primary feed trees behind the ‘koala eruption’ in the Eden region are now endangered, because they don’t grow back. The evidence indicates secondary koala feed species are in the same boat.

So while I do agree with Vic, that forests need better management, that’s where the agreement ends. It is simply not possible to undertake low intensity burns in these forests, due to the previous and ongoing poor management.


However, I believe management aimed at reducing fuel loads would create employment, while providing some protection from wildfires and aid in funding real attempts to restore biodiversity. The photo shows the first of nine 10×10 metre plots, logged and burned in 1982, where the majority of forest oak have been removed. Apart from two retained trees, a Yellow stringy-bark and a Rough barked apple at the rear of the plot, only one very small and sick apple has regenerated in the plot.

The small dead trees in the plots, oak and silver-top ash, have mostly been converted to biochar, producing just over 500 litres or enough to spread half a litre per square metre. When the green wood dries, I’ll add another 50 litres to each plot.  In the bare areas I’ve begun planting Woollybutt seedlings and Yellow stringy- bark seed.

Unlike the OE&H’s approach, in the square metre around these plantings, I’m incorporating 350 grams of either dolomite or crushed sea-shells, with another litre of char and in some instances 250 grams of gypsum, into the first couple of inches of soil.

While there is uncertainty about whether they will grow, if they do it will be interesting to compare outcomes with the OE&H’s soils haven’t changed approach.

Spring has definitely sprung, although 30 degrees with a strong north-westerly wind does seem more consistent with an early summer. Perhaps more important is that this month, the eleventh day to be precise, is supposed to end to the six year regional federal and state funded koala projects.

Regrettably, there are still no reports for the ‘Foundations for River Recovery and Return of Koalas to the Bega Valley‘ project. Similarly there is still only one ,arguably irrelevant report for ‘Corridors and core habitat for koalas on the NSW Far South Coast’ project.

Of course time moves on and now, with the conservation movement calling for adaptive management, a reasonable question could ask about the degree to which our understanding of koalas and their habitat, has improved during this time. In addition, whether a similar sum ($13 million)could provide for more positive outcomes, given what has been learned.

 

The map above comes from the original for ‘Corridors and core habitat for koalas on the NSW Far South Coast’ project application.  It shows the areas defined as ‘core koala habitat’, aka logging exclusion areas. Areas proposed for revegetation with primary koala feed trees and theoretical corridors. Added to the map is the orange ellipse, indicating core habitat, recently burned.

One of the NSW government’s concerns was that a previously federally funded koala project, in an area it proposed for revegetation, had planted the trees incorrectly. Hence it had to be done again.
This suggestion forms the basis for the the NSW government’s general understanding of the environment. In essence that soil fertility never reduces, irrespective of how the land is managed. Of course this position may have changed since 2011, but to date, there is no evidence to prove it.

As reported in the Bega District News last week, the general secretary of Public Service Association (PSA), Stewart Little ” . . . has hit out at state government cuts to NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service jobs”. Describing the cuts as a ‘kick in the teeth’, Mr Little suggested there had been a lack of consultation and ” . . .the restructure is occurring in the lead up to the bushfire season, “when experienced planning should be in full swing”, and may impact the safety of visitors.”

The report also indicated ” . . . A May letter from Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton to Tanja’s Rod Llewelyn confirmed three Enhanced Bushfire Management Program Field Officers had been relocated to Eden in January to “enhance delivery of the program”, and improve “preparation for hazard reduction burns, maintenance of fire management trails”, and to make sure equipment is accessible.”

Regrettably, the Enhanced Bushfire Management Program is all about burning National Parks, at least once every 20 years. Along with being a threat to koalas and their habitat, the program has no scientific basis and doesn’t provide leverage over wildfire in this bio-region. That said, it would appear that the most recent large burns in the Flora Reserve didn’t require additional staff.
Rod Llewelyn also indicated “ . . . If there is a fire between Tathra and Bermagui, it will take them an hour to get there, let alone prepare. The basic principle of firefighting is the quicker you get to it, the easier it is to manage.”

Couldn’t agree more, although creating full time employment in the local area, so trained staff were on hand to help cover any emergencies, may be the best approach.


The details for the yet to be sighted flora reserves working plan are supposed to be based on the requirements of the Forestry Act (2012). According to the act (Part 3, Section 5 [6]) ” . . . A working plan may contain provisions authorising a local council in whose area a flora reserve is situated to participate to the extent specified in the working plan in the management of the reserve or in carrying out any of the operations authorised by the working plan on or in relation to the reserve. In any such case, the council concerned may expend out of its consolidated fund any money necessary to meet the costs and expenses of exercising the authority conferred on it by the working plan.”

The map above shows the roading in and around the flora reserves, coming in at just over 200 kilometres. Based on a conservative volume estimate, the over abundant woody biomass contributing to the wildfire hazard, in an area 20 metres either side of these roads, is likely to exceed 8,000 tonnes.

So it may be an opportune time to test the water with Bega Shire Council, to ascertain interest or otherwise in a different approach. Something along the lines of the pilot bio-char demonstration facility, developed by Pacific Pyrolysis and described below, would fit the bill.

” . . . The pilot demonstration facility has a capacity of approximately 300kg/hr (dry basis) of biomass material and is capable of powering a 200 kW electrical generator which is integrated on site. The PyroChar 300 facility has been used to produce quantities of Agrichar™ soil amendment for research programs since 2006 and has a fully documented set of run logs dating back to this time.”

The Greens held a forum at Bellingen recently, to talk about the proposed Great Koala National Park on the Mid North Coast. Not surprisingly, the main focus is eliminating logging.
In addition and according to the Maclay Argus ‘more importantly‘, the National Parks Association CEO Kevin Evans and Senior Scientific Officer, Oisin Sweeney talked to Bellingen Shire Council about the proposal.

Responding to the publicity was the Nationals member for state seat of Oxley, Melinda Pavey MP, saying ” . . . the answer to concerns about mid north coast koalas does not involve converting more State Forest to National Park.” Rather ” . . . Mrs Pavey said that landholders know the National Park Estate is under-managed for key threatening processes of wild dogs, wildfire, scrub invasion and eucalypt decline – all causing koala habitat degradation.” And ‘ . . . Mrs Pavey said the community must look at the actual performance of the conservation estate in achieving real outcomes – just enlarging it does not automatically deliver good conservation outcomes.”

Mrs Pavey finished her PR with “ . . . I really do think it’s time for a mature, factual, science-based and constructive discussion about forestry, our forest estate and koalas – not just more land tenure changes.”

The NPA rejected Mrs Pavey’s suggestion that more national parks will not help koalas and called on the NSW Government to honor her call for  ‘a mature, factual, science-based discussion about forestry our forest estate and koalas’.

For those that do not support the state government’s management of public forests, irrespective of whom is managing it, any talk about facts and science is welcome, being better late than never.

Regrettably, It seems that both the conservation movement and the government still have some way to go.

 

Following up on the koala I spotted, it has now visited the same tree three times in as many weeks. Based on the pellet size it seems to be a youngish male, that appears to have taken over the home-range of an older male.Consequently, it seems likely that a female still occupies the area, broadly delineated within the black ellipse on the map above and she is the focus of the boy’s attention.

If one were to assume that each of the modeled koala activity areas on the map represented a koala, the number of koalas could be over estimated. So it is possible that most of the activity areas reflect just one male koala and 3 or 4 resident females.

 

As reported on the ABC this week, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC)” . . . has asked political leaders to actively consider using organic matter as fuel as an option to bolster the baseload energy supply.” CEFC chief executive, Paul McCartey, stressed that “forests or plantations used for the biomass had to be certified under a recognised brand as sustainable.”

Of course this includes all native forests certified under the less than adequate Australian Forestry Standard. So there was a less than supportive response from the conservation movement.

While open to the use of biomass from plantations, Greens’ forestry spokeswoman, Janet Rice said ” . . . There are just far too many potential holes in the legislation which would allow wood from native forests to be able to be used.” NCC chief executive Kate Smolski said ” . . . Instead of considering feeding what remains of our forests into power plants, all public native forests should be protected following the expiry of the RFAs and the industry transitioned to 100 per cent plantation.”

While this sounds all very well, the notion that native forests are protected under NPWS management is a tad unrealistic. Indeed, based on current information the volume of CO2 pumped annually into the atmosphere, from the NPWS’s counter-conservation burning, must be very close to forestry’s contribution. From that perspective and given the negative impacts most fire has on forests, alternative management methods are required.

In particular, reducing the wildfire hazard in regrowth forests through low impact biomass removal. So the biomass can be used for gasification and power production while the carbon, in the form of charcoal, can be sequestered in the soil. The regrowth forest management issue was raised at the recent forest forum, both by myself and a representative from East Gippland. So the message may get through, eventually.

Home-sized biomass gasification unit

Last week the NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton announced more funding for koalas indicating ” . . .This $10 million investment is in addition to the $2.5 million allocated for the creation in March 2016 of flora reserves totalling 120 square kilometres on the South Coast, run by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, to protect the last known local koala population.”

Last month NSW Legislative Council Greens member, Ms Dawn Walker asked the questions on notice pasted below, with answers due by 28 June. While the distribution of the $2.5 million logging subsidy is of interest. The NSW government’s response to the last question may be more useful.

1592 LANDS AND FORESTRY—MURRAH FLORA RESERVE—Ms Walker to ask the Minister for Primary Industries, Minister for Regional Water, Minister for Trade and Industry representing the
Minister for Lands and Forestry, and Minister for Racing—
(1) In relation to the $2.5 million allocated from the NSW Environmental Trust to Forestry Corporation of NSW for a haulage subsidy to source alternative logs following the declaration of the Murrah Flora Reserves:
(a) how much haulage subsidy was allocated in 2015-16?
(b) how much haulage subsidy was allocated in 2016-17?
(2) Does the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 apply in State Forest flora reserves such as the Murrah Flora Reserves?

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